Jared Polis ’96 has always been a trailblazer. At Princeton, during the nascent days of the World Wide Web, he and some friends started a company that provided internet service from his dorm room. A few years later, the company was sold for $23 million. After graduating, Polis started several other tech companies and sold them for much more.
But at 25, he bought a yellow school bus and crisscrossed Colorado to campaign for an unpaid seat on the state’s Board of Education. He spent more than $1 million — the incumbent spent $10,000 — and won by 90 votes.
He plunged into national politics in 2008 by winning election to Congress from his Boulder-area district. Ten years later, he was sworn in as governor of Colorado, making history as the first openly gay man elected governor in the country.
He is a Democrat but doesn’t toe the party line, taking positions that have angered fellow Democrats and won notice from Republicans. Journalists have called him “an awkward savvy genius,” “a progressive pit bull in a polo shirt,” and “the weirdest Democrat in America.” Denver magazine 5280 called him “unconventional, unpredictable, pragmatic, probably brilliant, and incredibly wealthy.” At the annual meeting of the bipartisan Western Governors’ Association in June, where Polis sat down for an interview with PAW, he emphasized his across-the-aisle approach: “We have a lot more that unites us than what divides us, and that’s sometimes challenging in this day and age, with people peddling division on both sides of the aisle.”
After his election to a second term last year and repeated mentions in the press as a possible Democratic presidential candidate, the question is: What will this maverick do next?
Polis, who is 48, was always precocious. Born in Boulder, he moved to California when he was 5 but spent summers in Colorado. His parents, Susan Polis Schutz and Steve Schutz *70, met at a math and physics mixer at Princeton while Susan was a student at Rider University and Steve was getting his Ph.D. in physics. After getting married, the couple drove around the country in a camper designing and selling posters. “Hippies without drugs,” Susan told The New York Times in 2013.
(Polis went by Jared Polis Schutz during college; he changed his name in 2000. After a friend was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, Polis sent out invitations to a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation that said a $100 ticket would let the buyer in on his new name. He became Jared Schutz Polis, taking his mother’s maiden name to honor his grandmother.)
As a child, Polis helped with the greeting card company his parents founded, Blue Mountain Arts. “At 8, he manned the booth at trade shows, he knew all the reps,” Steve told the Times. As a ninth-grader, Polis took classes at the University of California, San Diego, and was admitted to Princeton during his junior year of high school.
A politics major, Polis never took a computer science class at Princeton, though he was courting investors for his first internet startup from his dorm room. “I was a technology hobbyist — growing up, I had a modem, and I loved technology,” Polis told PAW. He wrote his thesis about the impact of the internet on politics.
“Jared was impressive right out of the gate,” says Derek Kilmer ’96, who met Polis through student government and is now a congressman for Washington state. “He was creating internet companies when other people were trying to figure out how to use email. He’s always been someone who functions at an incredibly high level.”
During his junior year, Polis ran for president of Princeton Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and was defeated, the only election he has ever lost. He became communications director of USG instead and led what he called, in a 2000 article in The Daily Princetonian, the nation’s first online election, which had a 30% higher turnout than previous USG elections, he told the newspaper.
His sophisticated understanding of technology and his entrepreneurial ambitions led Polis to amass a fortune by the age of 30. At 19, Polis asked his parents if he could start a web page for their greeting card company. Bluemountain.com, a platform to send free cards electronically, quickly became the internet’s 14th largest site in terms of traffic. In 1999, the company was sold to Excite@Home for $780 million. Another Polis idea — which he initially sketched out on a pile of napkins over a meal with a fellow entrepreneur — was a website for ordering floral arrangements. ProFlowers, which he founded in 1998, sold seven years later for $477 million.
But wealth “has never seemed to be the overriding goal for him,” says Sue Suh ’96, who met Polis through student government. “If he made money, it would be to be able to channel it into helping people.”
Politics was where Polis’ true ambitions lay. In a 2000 photo accompanying a Denver Post article about his campaign for the state’s education board, he peeks out the window of a school bus next to the headline “Entrepreneur keeps seeking next challenge.”
“A lot of policymaking is what’s in the realm of the possible. He’d rather make a law that makes someone’s life better than sell a bumper sticker.”
— Rep. Derek Kilmer ’96
A year before beginning a six-year term on the education board, he started the Jared Polis Foundation with a mandate to support education in Colorado and increase access to technology. He founded a public charter school in 2004 that focuses on intensive English language instruction to help recent immigrants and their family members earn their high school diplomas. There are now three Denver-area campuses of the New America School, supported by his foundation, and they each help with childcare costs and hold classes in the evenings for those who have jobs. Polis served as superintendent for two years. A fourth school, AUL Denver, co-founded by his foundation in 2005, is for students experiencing homelessness and other unstable living conditions. The model has been replicated in other states. (The foundation went on hiatus when Polis became governor.)
In 2007, Colorado’s congressional seat in his hometown, Boulder, came open. After Polis formally launched his campaign for Congress, he gave an interview to The Boulder Daily Camera that discussed his sexuality. It was not a secret, but “it had to be sort of official and in print,” Polis explained to The Colorado Independent in 2018. His campaign spent several million dollars — much of it his own money, according to OpenSecrets.org — to win the Democratic primary, and won the general election in the strongly Democratic district by more than 28 points. He was 33.
Polis and his husband, Marlon Reis, have been together since 2003 and are raising a son and a daughter. (They have declined to say whether the children were adopted or born by surrogate.) They were married by a rabbi in 2021 on the 18th anniversary of their first date. Their daughter, then 7, was the flower girl, and their then-9-year-old son was the ring bearer. Polis, in another first, is Colorado’s first Jewish governor, and he made history again as the first governor to have a same-sex wedding while in office. His children led to yet another Polis first: When he arrived in Congress in 2009, he was the first same-sex parent elected to that body.
It’s particularly striking for Colorado to have a gay governor since it once had the nickname “the hate state” after an anti-LGBTQ+ amendment was approved on a statewide ballot by 53% of voters in 1992. (The amendment, which prohibited state and local governments from passing anti-discrimination laws protecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, was found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.)
But since his 2008 run for Congress, little has been made of his being gay in his campaigns, either by him or his opponents. Longtime conservative writer George Will *68 called Polis’ sexuality “interestingly uninteresting” to voters during his first run for governor. But Polis did receive hate mail and slurs while running for Congress.
“I would say it’s never been a factor in my races,” Polis says. “Voters want to know what you are going to do for them, and how you’re going to make their life better. They’re not terribly interested in what your family looks like.”
“I think that people care more about what you’re going to do for them than your faith or what gender your partner is.”
— Gov. Jared Polis ’96
That said, it was unusual to have a member of Congress who was part of a same-sex couple in Washington when he arrived in 2009. “When I was elected, it was just Barney and Tammy and I,” he says, referring to members of Congress Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin. “There were three of us, so we got to be known by our first names.”
Polis’ style has been described as tech entrepreneur meets policy wonk. In his State of the State address in January 2023, he not only mentioned Star Wars, but also did an impression of Yoda, the movie series’ pint-size green Jedi master. Much has been made in the press of his awkward fashion choices, including wearing a clip-on bow tie with a golf shirt on the House floor, which prompted GQ magazine to offer him a makeover. (He accepted.) His penchant for wearing sneakers with suits earned his inaugural ball the name “the Blue Sneaker Ball,” with many partygoers favoring sneakers with their formal wear.
Polis cops to loving policy. “It excites me when you can come up with good ideas that improve the lives of people,” he says.
In his pursuit of the best policy ideas, he regularly departs from Democratic Party positions. He has favored increasing school choice for parents and declared that Colorado should get rid of its state income tax. He got into a public spat with the mayors of Chicago and New York City for busing migrants from Denver to their cities. And he earned attention from Fox News host Dana Perino after he lifted mask mandates and explained that, in his view, public health officials shouldn’t “tell people what to wear.” Perino described him as “somebody who has been fearless in talking about COVID.”
Reason magazine praised his “strong libertarian leanings,” declaring, “Polis’ success shows that Democrats can win without embracing big government.”
Kilmer, who served in Congress with Polis for several years, points to Polis’ leadership during his years as a congressman in the New Democrat Coalition, a group of pragmatic, pro-growth centrists who seek to combat partisanship. “For him, a lot of policymaking is what’s in the realm of the possible,” Kilmer says. “He’d rather make a law that makes someone’s life better than sell a bumper sticker. I really do think he’s genuinely in politics to do what he thinks is right for the folks that he represents. That shouldn’t sound so unusual, but sometimes it is in today’s politics.”
Polis has been described “as everything from libertarian to socialist to conservative to liberal,” he says. “I believe in doing what works, regardless of whether it’s a good idea from the left or the right or the middle.” He says he picks “policies that work, regardless of whether they originate from a particular ideology or not. The problem with many ideologies is that [people] are so into their ideology that they support policies that don’t work. It’s important to go beyond that and look at the evidence and data.” He points out that his approach — less soapbox, more pragmatism — “has certainly attracted voters from across the ideological spectrum.”
In fact, Polis cruised to reelection in last year’s governor’s race by a 19-point margin. Several news media outlets, including The New York Times and Politico, named him as a possible presidential candidate in the event Biden decided not to run again.
Will lauded Polis’ “impressive political talents and ambitions” in a 2022 Washington Post column that explored the governor’s presidential prospects. “I think the country is hungry for someone with some heterodox views who can’t be easily pigeonholed, and I think Gov. Polis satisfies that longing,” Will told PAW. Polis’ previous career as a successful entrepreneur, during which he “demonstrated his ability to add value to the American economy,” could also help his electability, Will says.
Mitch Daniels ’71, who served two terms as Indiana’s governor, has been keeping an eye on Polis. “A long time ago, somebody said to me, ‘The first duty of a political candidate or aspirant is to be interesting,’ and he is,” says Daniels, a Republican who has been politically inactive since he became a college president in 2013. “In an age of monochromatic politicians, some of whom don’t seem to do their own thinking or homework, we need more people who don’t fit that mold.”
Daniels cites Polis’ approach to COVID — Polis loosened restrictions earlier than many Democratic governors — as an example of Polis’ independent thinking. Daniels was president of Purdue University during the pandemic, so he also had to make decisions about COVID restrictions. “He took a more balanced approach, and I know from personal experience that those who did took a lot of grief for it.”
In the current political climate, going against the prevailing sentiment in one’s party is tougher than ever, Daniels points out. “It’s always required a little bit of gumption to take stances that are not the prevalent ones in one’s political world, but it’s never been so hard as today, when people who tend to control nominations in both parties are toward the extreme edge in each. Whether I agree or don’t, I admire people in both parties who are willing to.”
Asked if he would consider running for president, Polis says, “I’m not considering running for president. I love the job that I have. Being governor of Colorado is very much a dream job.” He does believe that the nation could elect a president who is gay: “I think that people care more about what you’re going to do for them than your faith or what gender your partner is.”
His sole focus, he says, is on serving as Colorado’s governor for the next three-plus years. “I’m going to treat it like a sprint and make the most of every day.”
Term limits in Colorado mean Polis cannot run for governor in 2026. At the age of 51, he will be at the end of his gubernatorial career, with a decade in Congress and a wildly successful run as a tech entrepreneur in the rearview mirror. A pioneer for the LGBTQ+ community, he will have accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. Where will he turn his considerable energy once his term as governor is over? When asked, he politely demurs. “I haven’t really devoted any time towards what I’m going to do after that.”
Jennifer Altmann is a freelance writer.